Jungian sandplay therapy and alchemical transformation

bookcover,new“A testament to the healing capacities of the imagination, the humble “star in man” that connects us to the unconscious: to unknown and unexpected developments in ourselves.” –Literary Aficionado

“Valuable above and beyond being a case study because it remarkably grounds what can be very illusive alchemical imagery into psychological experience.” –Margaret Johnson, editor, Psychological Perspectives



About War of the Ancient Dragon

Six-year-old Randy conducts bloody wars in the sandtray, calling them “World War One,” World War Two, and “The War of the Ancient Dragon.” He burns fires and bombs helpless victims, killing some and saving others. What could possibly be going on in his imagination?

The contents of his imagination—what the alchemists call the “realm of subtle bodies”—are revealed in his sandplay from one session to the next, and there we see the raw, autonomous dynamism that motivates Randy, already branded a bully and nearly expelled from first grade. We see fiery, destructive conflict, part his, part his culture’s, part lived, part projected, a conflict of archetypal opposites that engulf Randy’s personality and fuel his violent behavior.

But also from Randy’s imaginal world, out of the very war between opposites that drives him, the unknown third possibility unfolds.Allowed to exist and be seen with a paradoxical healing aim, the war fights itself out over time in the safe container of the sandtray, finds its unpredictable resolution, and gradually releases Randy from its grip. He finally emerges, calling himself “king of the bloodfire,” returned to the rule of his own emotional life. He has adapted to school, proud of his achievements, a star student in math.

Randy’s lively narratives animate his dramas and reveal the distinct hallmarks of an alchemical opus over the course of 24 therapy sessions. He remarkably echoes the words of the ancient sages such as Zosimos, who centuries ago in his own imagination witnessed the “torture” of transformation in fire.

Randy’s process is thoroughly documented and amplified, unveiling the alchemical stages of transformation—nigredo, albedo, and rubedo—in a way that helps us relate to those chapters in our own individuation struggles. Psychological Perspectives editor Margaret Johnson writes that the work is “valuable above and beyond being a case study because it remarkably grounds what can be very illusive alchemical imagery into psychological experience.”

War of the Ancient Dragon guides us through the gritty realities of the alchemical process, helping us realize how they can manifest in everyday life, dream images, and fantasy. Above all the book is a testament to the healing capacities of the imagination, the humble “star in man” that connects us to the unconscious: to unknown and unexpected developments in ourselves.


Left and Right United?

One of my favorite quotes from Jung’s Collected Works Vol. 16, from the essay “Psychology of the Transference” describes the longterm goal of achieving a working balance between the left and right, or between unconscious and conscious aspects of ourselves.  Once in a while we may achieve a balance that feels blissful, especially when it is new. But if we hold on too tightly to that bliss, we end up tipping one way or the other and disallowing meaning in any other experience, or in anyone else’s experience. Overall, the bliss of wholeness is “important only as an idea; the essential thing is the opus…” And the opus is an inner work, one that our world needs from each of us.

“Is there anything more fundamental than the realization, “This is what I am”? It reveals a unity which nevertheless is—or was—a diversity. No longer the earlier ego with its make-believes and artificial contrivances, but another, “objective” ego, which for this reason is better called the “self.” No longer a mere selection of suitable fictions, but a string of hard facts, which together make up the cross we all have to carry or the fate we ourselves are. These first indications of a future synthesis of personality, as I have shown in my earlier publications, appear in dreams or in “active imagination,” where they take the form of the mandala symbols which were also not unknown in alchemy. But the first signs of this symbolism are far from indicating that unity has been attained. Just as alchemy has a great many very different procedures, ranging from the sevenfold to the thousandfold distillation, or from the “work of one day” to “the errant quest” lasting for decades, so the tensions between the psychic pairs of opposites ease off only gradually; and, like the alchemical end-product, which always betrays its essential duality, the united personality will never quite lose the painful sense of innate discord. Complete redemption from the sufferings of this world is and must remain an illusion. Christ’s earthly life likewise ended, not in complacent bliss, but on the cross. (It is a remarkable fact that in their hedonistic aims materialism and a certain species of “joyful” Christianity join hands like brothers.) The goal is important only as an idea; the essential thing is the opus which leads to the goal: that is the goal of a lifetime. In its attainment “left and right” are united, and conscious and unconscious work in harmony.” (Collected Works of C.G. Jung, Volume 16, para. 400.)

The Forest in Fairy Tales: Symbol of our Lone Nature

Marie-Louise Von Franz in her book, The Feminine in Fairy Tales, discusses the psychological meaning of the forest in fairy talesIn many tales about the developing feminine, a girl or princess retreats into a forest, hiding or taking refuge from a situation that seems destructive. In one such tale, Allerleirauh or All Fur, the heroine runs away from her father, who wants to marry her because she looks just like her late mother. Allerleirauh hides in the forest of a nearby kingdom and takes refuge in a hollow tree.

The fairy tale depicts a psychological situation in which an old, ruling attitude in the psyche (the old king) fails to recognize a new generation of feminine development (the princess). In a woman, such an attitude can live a dynamic life as her own inner masculine voice, an animus voice that is stuck in old ideas about who she “should” be. Such a voice often and loudly insists on a woman meeting expectations that do not belong to her true nature, expectations for example that insist on perfection or pleasing others. Von Franz says a retreat “into the forest” to escape such an attitude or voice in oneself symbolizes a retreat into one’s deep inner nature. Such a withdrawal from collective life necessarily involves an encounter with existential loneliness:

“Most women, since they depend so much on relationship and long for it, have great difficulty in admitting to themselves how lonely they are and in accepting that as a given situation. To retire into the forest would be to accept the loneliness consciously, and not to try to make relationships with good will, for that is not the real thing. According to my experience, it is very painful, but very important, for women to realize and accept their loneliness. The virgin soil would be that part of the psyche where there was no impact of collective human activities, and to retire to that would be to retire not only from all animus opinions and views of life, but from any kind of impulse to do what life seems to demand of one. The forest would mean sinking into one’s innermost nature and finding out what it feels like. The vegetative is also spontaneous life and offers healing to the woman destroyed by a negative animus or negative mother-complex.” ( 1982, p. 85.)